Pick up the paper any day and you’ll find tiny straws in the wind (or headlines inside the fold) reflecting the seeping away of American power. The President of the planet’s "sole superpower" and his top diplomats and commanders have been denouncing Iran for months as the evil hand behind American disaster in Iraq as well as Afghanistan.
So imagine, when President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan arrived in Washington a couple of weeks back and promptly described Iran as "a helper and a solution" for his country, even as President Bush insisted in his presence: "I would be very cautious about whether or not the Iranian influence in Afghanistan is a positive force." At almost the same moment, Iraq’s embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki paid an official visit to Iran, undoubtedly looking for support in case the U.S. turned on his government. Maliki "held hands" with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini, and called for cooperation. In response, all President Bush could do was issue a vague threat: "I will have to have a heart to heart with my friend, the prime minister, because I don’t believe [the Iranians] are constructive…. My message to him is, when we catch you playing a non-constructive role, there will be a price to pay." (Later, a National Security Council spokesman had to offer a correction, insisting the threat was aimed only at Iran, not Maliki.) Then, to add insult to injury, just a week after Bush and Karzai met in Washington, Ahmadinejad headed for Kabul with a high-ranking Iranian delegation to pay his respects to the Afghan president "in open defiance of Washington’s wishes." Think slap in the puss.
What made this little regional diplomatic dance all the more curious was the fact that Karzai and Maliki are such weak (and weakening) American-backed leaders — Maliki of a government in chaos whose purview hardly extends beyond the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, and Karzai, sometimes dubbed the "mayor of Kabul," as head of a government visibly losing control over even the modest areas it had ruled. In another age, each would have been dubbed an American "puppet" and yet, here they were, defying an American president in search of support from a hated regional power on whose curbing Bush has staked what’s left of his presidency.